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Protect and Survive (interview)

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title Protect and Survive
author Rob Young
publication The Wire
date 2005/10
issue 260
pages 40-47

"Protect and Survive" by by Rob Young


  • ISSN: 0952-0686


This is an original text copied verbatim from the original source. Do not edit this text to correct errors or misspellings. Aside from added wikilinks, this text is exactly as it originally appeared.

In a rare face to face interview at their Scottish retreat, Boards of Canada breakin their self-imposed isolation to scotch the myths that have coalesced around them. With the release of their third album in seven years, they explain the reasons for the artificial ageing and geometric twists to which they subject their music, and reflect on being part of the 'analogue-to-digital' generation. Words: Rob Young. Photography: Leon Chew

The Bass Rock is barely visible in the late summer heat-mist, lying about three miles off the deserted coast near North Berwick. The crag rises 350 feet out of the turquoise sea, and faintly visible against its sheer cliff sides is a white lighthouse. A millenium and a half before the light was et on the rock at the beginning of the last century, a Lindisfarne monk, St Baldred of Bass, lived a hermit's existence alone on the island, shuttered in a rain-lashed cell to confront alone his god and, doubtless, his demons too. Today gannets are the island's sole visitors, as well as the occasional tourist boats ploughing through the surf to visity the martyr's chapel. As I crunch along the Ravensheugh Sands with Boards Of Canada's Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, the guano-stained Rock takes on a mythical hue: the distance and the sea mist cause it to almost melt into thin air, the wraith of a giant white molar on the horizon. There's a Moby-Dick quality to it -- you could spend a lifetime staring at it but it would remain eternally out of reach. "When I was a kid, about five or six years old," Mike Sandison is saying, " a relative of mine had one of those tacky ceramic owls on their mantelpiece, and it had multifaceted diamante eyes. I as totally obsessed with those sparkly glass eyes, for ages. I felt like looking into them was like looking sideways though everything, right through time. That's what we're trying to do with our music."

When you think about Boards Of Canada, the idea of hermits is never too far away. For the best part of a decade and a half now they have dwelt in what appears to be -- to a London/urban-centric media, anyway -- an isolated wilderness in Scotland (in fact, they've always lived within a half-hour's drive of the capital city Edinburgh, not in the Highlands, as is often reported). Their Interviews have invariably been conducted by email. Since their wistful, queasily nostalgia-soaked electronic music began to appear in the mid-90s, they have only done a handful of face to face interviews, none of those on home turf. Careful managers of their own public image, even today their homes and studio are out of bounds, but they do willingly and generously drive us all over the stretch of coast an countryside that's close to the place they call home. Until recently they live in the Pentland Hills, south west of Edinburgh; without much fanfare they have moved eastwards since then, into the flatter terrain of East Lothian. "We're not far away from where we were before," explains Sandison, "we relocated, but we're trying to let that slip by without anyone knowing about it, because we felt that if we made a big deal of it, it would start that whole thing again about the geography being more important than the music." "I always got this feeling that people were saying, 'because they were surrounded by the Pentland Hills, this is why their music sounds this way'," sighs Eoin. "And I don't really like that, because it's almost like saying, 'you're just like anyone else, and it's just because you happen to be there'. That's unfair -- it's not giving you credit for actually just doing music the way you want it to be." For better or worse, the Boards' 'secrecy' has endowed them with enigmatic status; the relative media silence has opened a space in which fans can speculate, mythmake, invent and interpret to their hearts' content -- much of which happens in chatrooms and message boards, thankfully well out of harm's way. But the pair certainly monitor these discussions and while they don't take part in them, they do seem somewhat confounded by the kind of rumours that have got out. As Eoin says, "if there's no apparent facts or information about you, then what happens is stuff just floods in to fill that gap, and very often it's basically a flood of bullshit that fills in your silhouette. And we've really suffered from that."

It's not as if these two aren't well travelled. Sandison once lived in London for a couple of years; they've lived in Edinburgh itself and, when they decide to take a break from their recording (and each other) to spend time with their partners, they're off travelling on the other side of the world -- Sandison mentions recent trips to France, Australia and New Zealand (where he's thinking of moving), while Eoin's considering a new life in Hong Kong with his Chinese girlfriend. Those are decisions still to be made, as their current live/work set-up is working well for them. "This whole project has come about with us living on the outskirts of Edinburgh," he says, "and for the last two decades we've been working on it from here, and we've had no reason to want to relocate to the city or to the south or anything, it's as simple as that. In fact, we actually find to some extend this so-called hermetic bubble that we live in is actually making it a lot easier for us to do our thing and not feel any urge to make it DJ friendly, or make it work for a certain social or club environment."

Meeting these two objects of so much speculation, it's refreshing to discover they'er not the dysfunctional electronic droids you might expect. They're actually a deal more open, articulate and opinionated than many other musicians of their generations, and don't appear terribly secretive. A kung fu manual is prominently stuffed in ther back seat pocket of Eoin's car, and Sandison rabbits away as we motor through the Scottish countryside, eulogising about being a parent and at one point asking his wife to text him a photo of his baby daughter at the dinner table so that he can show us. They've broken cover to talk about The Campfire Headphase, the latest in their very occasional series of records, and only their third album since Music Has The Right To Children (1998) and Geogaddi (2002). As they're at pains to point out, the long gaps between releases aren't because they're lazy or aloof, it's because of the perfectionism of theircraft. Six months of 2005 alone were spent on post-producing the album to get idea-germs into a state they call finished. "There are textures in what we try to do," explains Eoin, "which borrow from certain sounds or eras - even in visual things that we do as well, artwork - to trigger somthing, almost a cascade. It's like a memory that someone has - even though it's artificial, they never even had the memory; it's just you're ageing a song. And then people feel, is that something familiar I knew from yers ago?"

There's always been a warm, woody hue to BOC's music, but the dominant flavour has been synthesized on Campfire, guitars have taken over: steel strings, rippling chords and plucked notes dappled with reverb. "Chromakey Dreamcoat" ends with a blend of hillbilly steel and keyboard swirls not unlike the original BBC Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy theme - a typically BOC reference to the organic science fiction of the 1970s they love so much. The duo's clunkily satisfying rhythms - often played on a kit by Sandison - and analogue drum machines still govern the downtempo flow, but it's geared down to a pace Sandison describes as "that 70s truckstop diner feel". "Satellite Anthem Icarus" is especially gorgeous, a scudding oceanic cruise, riding on the sound of waves crashing on a beach, a woman's muffled voice and electronic tropical peeps. "On this album it's interesting," says Sandison, "because we are really overtly playing riffs on guitars, and although we've aged it and made it more like it's been recorded 25 years ago or something, with each track that we've used the guitars on, we've put things in it which are impossible on a 1970s record. Sometimes we'll construct an entire song out of samples that we'll make, so we'll maybe take instruments and play parts or play notes and we'll make entire spans of notes out of sounds we really like, and then play them in ways that the original instrument couldn't have played. You could take a span of lots of notes on the guitar, and then you would play chords on that guitar by hitting them all at once, in a way that a real guitar could never be played. And then of course we would do a lot of other things to the guitar to really tweak it and make it sound very, very gnarly and damaged." The two of them spend most of their time together doing the spadework that yields the raw produce for their music, creating sounds with what they describe as a collection of 200 instruments - not only synths, but flutes, stringed instruments, guitars, exotic percussion - sampling them, twisting them like sugar candy, and the thing that makes them Boards Of Canada pieces more than anything else: artificially aging them. The songwriting is one thing, but the process of transforming the melodic ideas into the finished product is what takes time. Tunes can wait around several years in a demo state before undergoing the duo's deliberate degradation technique. "One thing we tried to do," pursues Eoin, "and we're trying to do more of, is a sense that you're hearing a piece of music that comes through the wringer a bit - it's definitely not coming literally. It's not just a guy standing in front of you with the latest keyboard workstation. There's a sense that you're listening to sa tune, but how many times has that been copied from tape to tape to tape... by the time it's reached you it's crumbled, it's turned into powder. "You hera about monks in the Middles ages using a pin to create a Bible or a piece of art, and they'll do it for 40 years in the dark underneath a monastery," he continues, " and they'll be blind by the time they've finished. And some people really appreciate art like that, because there's something really tragic about it. It's almost like it's more beautiful than any other art, because instead of it being someone comfortably painting something in a day, there's something absolutely tragic and destroyed about it. So I always think you can still go further up the run from 'beautiful music', and that's beautiful music that seems to come out of some tragedy or brokenness. It becomes even more beautiful, the shards if the sound coming through are even more vibrant and affecting."

From the start, circumstances forced them to invent their own universe. Both born around 1970, they've been friends since they were toddlers, when their parents relocated to Canada to take up jobs in the construction industry. There, they were exposed to public education films on nature, science and the Earth, often narrated by Leslie Nielsen, made by the National Film Board of Canada. When they were around 13 years of age and living back in a bleak harbour town in the north of Scotland, they began "bullying" their friends into making experimental films with a Super-8 camera. "We'd say, 'This is waht you're going to do, because the other options are playing the Space Invaders machine down at the chip shop or breakin windows on phone boxes'," sandison says. To fit their pocket money budgets, the films involved time lapse, stop motion and 'sound to light' techniques. "We'd seen a lot of Norman McLaren animations while growing up," explains Eoin. At the same time Sandison, later joined by Eoin, began making music in various indie rock configurations. From the early 90s, university studies and unrewarding jobs were interleaved with more esoteric activities in the company of a large group of friends, artists, photographers, graphic designers and musicians, collectively known as Hexagon Sun. Their parties outgrew their homes in the Pentland Hills, spilling out into the woods. "It totally enhanced the experience," recalls Eoin. "Once you take it to an isolated, outdoor location, away from organisation, there's a sense of freedom that kicks in. It's sexier and less inhibited than an indoor event. You can have 50 or 100 people hanging out around fires, some rare music echoing around... the sound of two melodies clashing over one another, or maybe a melody to your left but a voice talking to your right, off through the trees. Doppler-shifting and filtering because of the wind or the random shapes around you. It creates a giddy, surreal sound that doesn't normally exist on records." In these unique outdoor communions, al arge part of Boards of Canada's sound aesthetic was forged. In 1996, after privately circulating cassette compilations of tracks they had been recording, Sandison and Eoin sent tapes to other labels including Skam in Manchester. Autechre's Sean Booth picked up on it immediately, and Skam released several BOC tracks before Warp swung into action and issued Music Has The Right To Children in 1998, with the distinctive treated cover image of a family Polaroid holiday snapshot with all the faces wiped blank. Geogaddi, appearing four years later, was decked with hexagonal, kaleidoscopic prisms that became something of a calling card. "I guess you could get a better idea of what these things symbolise by reading Aldous Huxley's The Doors Of Perception," says Eoin when I ask him about the significance of those shapes. "Also, I've always had an interest in the yamabushi of ancient Japan, the 'mountain men'. They used symbols as a way of having a willpower that would always outlive any challenge. They used repetitive hand symbols or drawn characters to create a neutral place they could visit mentally whenever they faced hardship. For us, "Turquoise Hexagon Sun" always returns us to a zone where we can throw off the baggage and begin again."

Somewhere up in the Highlands, they tell me, lies a valley that's the last remaining site in the UK where radio signals, microwaves and mobile phone signals can't reach. An Eden such as this, free of the harmful of the harmful effects of technology and sheltered from penetration by foreign chatter, sounds like the kind of place Boards Of Canada's music could happily live. A place where you might be able to start to observe the world directly, anew, unmediated by outside influence. In such places you can build your ark, rescue yourself from being dragged along with the flood. Most of the music they love and admire is made by folk who have built their own bubble, where the music lives in its own epoch, its own specially crafted box. The "Victorian fairly lights" and "looking-glass world" of fellow Scots The Cocteau Twins are one; Devo, inventors of their own theatrical universe and whose early songs they admire because they sound like advertising jingles for washing powder, are another. They are currently enthusing about William Basinski's Disintergration Loops ("Funny enough, when we first heard that, we thought, 'We've got tapes like that ourselves' ") and Stevie Wonder's rapturous mid-70s funk - "that bit in "Living For The City" where there's the descending chords, and it'S all transposing all the way down, and it's just going chromatically all down the scale... I recognise something there where it feels like he's trying to translate something that is otherworldly, that's not about the mundane," explains Sandison. "There's usually a visual element in the tracks we write," he continues, "and it probably comes from an obsession with film and TV. When yyou're a kid, a three second long animation with rainbows morphing into A-Bomb blasts can be massively affecting and influential. I think you see these things more vividly when you're younger, but as an adult your brain starts to filter out it considers irrevelant background noise. The downside is that you become desensitised to a lot of things and that leads you to not really feel much at all." Boards Of Canada's music is awash with sadness at the loss of a child's vivid perception. It struggles constantly to regain that enhanced sensation of encountering the world afresh, while planting a nostalgia for the sounds and images of the particular time in which they grew up. They are addressing their own specific generation - you might call them the analogue-to-digital transfer generation - whose formative years straddled huge changes in geopolitics (the Cold War and its nuclea threat which hung over 80s teens had evaporated by the time they left college), domestic and ocomputer technology (typing in the 80s became word processing in the 90s), and the nature and role of the media. Hence their music's slathering with textual referents, deliberated sonic aides memoires that are almost recognisable but remain just out of memory's reach. "We could only exist in the short pocket of time when music has made the transition form analogue to digital," agrees Sandison. "There's this little moment where there's enough nostalgia attached to the former recording media and the faults that it had, that certain people will get it, and understand what we're doing. If there's sadness in the way we use memory," he goes on, "it's because the time you're focusing on has gone forever. I guess it's a theme we play on a lot, that bittersweet thing where you face up to the fact that certain chapters of you life are just Polaroids now."

The faded turquoise and yellow packaging of The Campfire Headphase contains a gallery of Polaroid photos they've collected over the years, family snapshots digitally mildewed and rotted with similar artificial ageing techniques they use for their music. The idea, they tell me, is to create the feeling that you've just found all these pictues in someone else's old house and that the people shown in the pictures are al dead. As an aural analogy, they describe the degrading processo ntheir sound as introducing a "toxic, poisonous" element. Sandison articulates the fascination with the imperfect: "Even when we sound like we're being conventional, there's always something in it which is kind of dark, that's doing the bittersweet thing. Sometimes we deliberately construct songs to be pretty conventional sounding, and then we abuse them, we throw something in that's kind of a spike. "If you ever see these American makeover programmes where they get ordinary looking people and they give them these regulation whiter-than-white teeth and veneers and all that, quite often I find the finished product really sinister, because they've got these really symmetrical faces, with perfect teeth and everything, make-up and the hair. If you actually compare the before-and-after pictures, the person you could imagine being friends with is the one with squint teeth and everything and the gnarly face. And it's the same sort of thing with music and other art. If there's something a bit rough about it, it feels more personal to you, like something that belonged to you on a cassette tape that you've been cherishing for years, rather than something digital and perfect and straight. The drop-outs, the flutter on the tape and everything, you get used to where it happens." Eoin: "I think it's a reaction to mundanity. Britain, for example, is a safe place to live, and a lot of people in the rest of the world come here to live because it's better than were they are, the grass is green here than it is there. But when you've lived here for a long time, you can start to feel a crushing mundanity, you need strange things to bring you out of it, otherwise you start feeling like a corpse." Sandison elaborates, "I think we try to make music that's more like normal music that's head through a damaged mind, so you're hearing it diagonally..." Boards Of Canada's eccendtric orbits, their unstable tones and disorientating sonic additives are all carefully calculated effects. In conversation they'll often talk about chords coming in at weird angles and diagonals, zapping melodic expectations. As one of Geogaddi's song titles reminds us, "The Devil Is In The Details": their mastery of numbers and geometry has its own part to play in the Confucian confusion.

"You can use rules or set theory to dictate timings and note intervals", expands Sandison about their composition strategies. "For instance, you can imagine your melody to run vertically instead of horizontally, so that you're thinking of a vertical spiral, running on the spot. There's a thing you can calculate for plants called divergence, which is a ratio of complete turns of spiral leaf positions relative to the number of leaves in that spiral. In plants, this usually gives a Fibonacci number, which is pretty uncanny, but it's basically a natural law that's trying to create optimum distribution of leaf positions, to stop leaves from obsucring each other in sunlight. You can apply a similar idea to a vertical spiral of music, to calculate optimal temporal event positions in a pattern or texture. It doesn't always make for easy listening though," he adds, laughing.

Time to puncture a few myths about Boards Of Canada. "The kind of thing that gets up my nose is when people describe us as 'approaching New Age' or soemthing like that," moans Sandison. "To me that's completly missing the point. If we do something that remotely sounds a bit like that, it's because we're actually doing it deliberately, we're doing almost as a pisstake." Google Boards Of Canada and you'll soon find fans with plenty of time on their hands, identifying all manner of psychedelic Easter eggs in the music: reversed samples and tapes, aural palindromes (sentences like "I've been gone about a week" that sound like the same when played forwards or in reverse) buried phrases that hint at paganism ("You Could eel The Sky" contains the words "a god with hooves"). Titles like "Music Is Math", "A Is To B As B Is To C", and "The Smallest Weird Number" (the number 70, which they adopted for the name of their own label/production company, Music70) imply numerological sorcery; musical structures arranged, tuned and sequenced at root level according to mathematical equations such as the Fibonacci sequence and Golden Ratio. Someone's even found that the toal playing time of Geogaddi is 66:06, and it's total hard drive space when ripped to MP3 is 666 megabytes, etc. All of which leads to speculation that they are involved in in some kind of cultish activity - a belief that gathered pace with the release of their 2000 EP In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country, which contained overt references to David Koresh's Branch Davidian community and its annihilation by the US military in 1993 during the Waco siege. "Not in the slightest," counters Sandison when I ask him for a definitive answer on their 'cult' status. "We're just purely coming at what we do from the angle at being interested in subjects. You get a lot of painters or film directors who are complete atheists who'll make films all about religion, or Christianity, not because they're obsessed with the subjects or they're actually evangelists, but just purely because it's something they're interested in for that project. It's exactly the same with us - we'll hit on some of these things, but at the end of the day we're just totally ordinary people that just happen to be making music." And why the particular focus on Waco? "We take a great interest in the spectrum of everything, religions and cults, anything connected to that," says Eoin. Because they are a break from the norm. So when you see something like that, a group of people doing their own thing, going away and living together like that... it's the fascination with that, and a sense of injustice..." "And the outrage at what happened," interjects Sandison. "I'm not a religious person," Eoin continues, "but what I felt seeing what happened there was asense of outrage - they're devoutly religious people, but what happened to them - were they just singled out because of this, and attacked? The victor always writes history, and the only history we know of David Koresh and those people is what's been written about by reference to things like what the FBI were investigating afterwards." "Which was why," Sandison swings back to the record in hand, "we thought we'd make a record that on the surface feels really sweet and very spacious and it'll be titled In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country, but what were these people doing in a beautiful place out in the country? They were getting shot and burned.. [Laughs] It's a typical thing that we would do..." Eoin: "Even when you go away and have that existence, something still chases you there, still follows you home. And that's the impression I get off that story." With every retreat form the world comes the need to protect and survive. Eoin once described a complicated solar alarm system he had installed in his house. Neighbourhood watch scheme broken down, has it? "No, it's just paranoia," he laughs. "No, when you've got things like master tapes going back to 1984, and irreplaceable musical equipment, honestly, you're gonna be paranoid. It's not really to do with past experiences, it's a kind of precautionary attitude, a Red Dawn attitude..."

And so we take our leave of these hermits, as they sit and wait for someone to put knobs back on digital TVs to change the colour and contrast (newer technologies not necessarily being better than old); leave them to their fervent belief that they can inoculate their music with the mould of hte past, warding off the viral spread of mediocrity. "We're not even remotely religious people," repeats Sandison, "but I understand what that is about when you're trying to channel something that's more about the cogs behind the workings of the universe, and it feels like sometimes everything you're looking at is a simulation that's based on a much more geometric background. And a lot of the time, this machine that we are seeing, the world as it is, is so smooth and predictable, that even art has become really predictable. It's all following rues and patterns that have already been set by somebody who programmed it. But if you really stand back and look away from it, the potential's there for art and music to go into absolutely bizarre territories where everything is utterly fresh and weird and new. The challenge is to imagine: how about just stop where we are, and let's just for a minute try and backtrack a way up here, and imagine what would happened if, in 1982, music had taken this other branch on this side, and where would it be now, and what would it be sounding like now?" "The Campfire Headphase is released this month on Warp.'


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